Is there a place for “Rules Lawyers” in Cypher?

I’ve said several times before that I started roleplaying long before I found the Cypher System from Monte Cook Games.  Starting with Dungeons & Dragons and moving to Shadowrun (the two that come most quickly to mind), one of the things that you find is that you become a collector of books.  Now, most of the time, a Players Handbook (in whatever edition you care to name) states that you can play the game with just that.  And they’re not wrong.  A GM usually requires a bit more, but it’s still technically minimal (usually only another book or two).  In D&D, you add the Dungeon Master’s Guide and something for Monsters (the Monster Manual or if you prefer third party, something like the Tome of Beasts from Kobold Press).  Technically, that’s all you need.

The problem comes in when they release other supplements that contain really helpful content like setting, alternate rules, adventure hooks, and other things.  While not strictly necessary, they can often help a GM and so they pick those up.  Fairly soon, you have gaming shelves that look like mine, and this is only one.  But the eventual problem is quantity.  As the rules page count goes up, unless you have an eidetic or photographic memory, you’re going to have a harder time remembering rules.

Enter the Rules Lawyer.  That one player that always seems to be able to quote them chapter and verse better than you do.  Now, I am not suggesting that all Rules Lawyers lord their encyclopedic knowledge of the rules over every GM. Nor do GM’s who happen to be Rules Lawyers always use them to bludgeon the players.  But the stereotype is there for a reason, and I have personally seen and had it happen to me enough to say that it can be difficult to deal with.  However, is the Rules Lawyer actually a problem and in particular, is it even necessary in a Cypher System game?

The first key point to understand is that while the title of “Game Master” suggests that such an individual has “mastered” their knowledge of the game.  That is actually the wrong context to look at the job in.  The Game Master is less of a “rules expert” and more of a “rules arbiter” or a “game facilitator”.  The first, too often comes across as a know-it-all or worse, engenders a feeling of superiority because of it (which is something you do not want in a GM OR in a player).  The other implies more flexibility and cooperation, which is very much in keeping with Cypher’s philosophy of shared storytelling.

The second point to understand is that there is not much rules lawyering to be done in Cypher in the first place.  The entire mechanic is: Determine an initial Difficulty level, determine what assets/skills/effort the character wishes to meet that task with, determine any outside hindrances or benefits, figure the adjusted Difficulty level and multiply by three, roll d20 to meet or exceed.  That’s it.  That’s all there is.  There are some pages in the book on the skills/assets/effort/hindrances/benefits that modify the Difficulty, but even they don’t cover everything.  Much is left up to the GM.  In fact, the book even says so:

“…the Cypher System is designed with the “teach a person to fish” style of good game mastering in mind. (If you don’t know what that means, it comes from the old adage “Give a person a fish and they’ll eat for a day. Teach a person to fish and they’ll eat for a lifetime.” The idea is not to give GMs a ton of rules to memorize or reference, but to teach them how to make their own logical judgment calls.) Of course, most of the time, it’s not a matter of exact precision. If you say the difficulty is 3 and it “should” have been 4, the world’s not over.”

Revised Cypher System Rulebook, page 403 (Bold added for emphasis)

“The thing to take away is this: don’t let the fear of making a mistake keep you from freely and quickly assessing the difficulty of a task and moving on with the game. Don’t agonize over it. Give it a difficulty, call for a roll, and keep the game moving. Hesitating over a rating will be far more detrimental to the game than giving something the wrong rating.”

Revised Cypher System Rulebook, page 406 (Bold added for emphasis)

These and multiple other passages seem to me to try and convey the idea that keeping the game moving and keeping the game exciting is much, much more important than calculating dice roll modifiers (or any other rules argument for that matter).  Adjudicate the rules to the discrete situation and move on.  The rules are and always will be there to serve the story, not the other way around.  Besides, often enough, you will need to come up with a ruling that is either different than what is presented in the book for narrative reasons, or not in the book at all.  Understand the system and the intent of the modifications and the rules and you won’t have to worry about minutiae.  Learn how to make your own logical judgement calls. There are plenty of rules-heavy, tactically based games (both RPG and other tabletop games) out there that can scratch an itch for math and tactical minutiae, and much better than the Cypher System can. I play some of those too.

Is it helpful to have someone who knows the in’s and out’s of the combat hindrances and bonuses?  Potentially, but only if it doesn’t slow down the game, or hinder your primary job of facilitating the story.  Realistically, it’s not a job that anyone should need to have in Cypher.  Make a call and then go on telling the story.  For more on this subject, have a look at the Revised Cypher System Rulebook, Chapter 25 and Your Best Game Ever, page 153 (there’s also an excellent short essay by Sean K. Reynolds on page 130 – you’ll want to take a look at as well).  The bottom line is this: You have more exciting things to do than quibble over numbers.  You and your players have worlds to create and stories to tell.  That’s serious business.  Much more serious than a single dice roll or rules “call”.  Happy Gaming!

  • Josh Walles

Now on DriveThruRPG, from Angel’s Citadel… A brand new, original setting for the Cypher System! The Hope’s Horizon Starter Kit requires the Revised Cypher System Rulebook from Monte Cook Games.

One thought on “Is there a place for “Rules Lawyers” in Cypher?

  1. Yet, I still find rules lawyers for Cypher, which astounds me for much of the same reason you wrote this posting. There are so few rules. But, the thing is, the skilled rules lawyer will look and look in the rules for the one place that the rule is written slightly differently, in a way they favor, and they will run with it. They will seek to use the rules to min-max characters, even in Cypher. It’s so annoying to be a player, and the min-maxing rules lawyer steals everyone else’s joy…. we are playing in their game, and aren’t we lucky to be fortunate tag-a-longs? Ugh.


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